Tell The Truth

 

 

David Bentley Hart, in his new translation of the New Testament and in his notes before, within and after that translation, insists that Paul’s theology is very different from what we modern Protestants imagine it to be.  Paul writes that Christ came into the “kosmos” to save the “kosmos.” In the translations we are used to, the Greek word “kosmos” is translated into the English word “world.” Hart argues that that will not do; that when Paul used the word “kosmos” he meant something far deeper and wider than anything you and I imagine when we hear the word “world.”

 

While you and I conceive of “the world” as everything that is apparent to our senses or even what humanity has made of the physical world, the word “kosmos,” for Paul, included all of that and the fallen spiritual order.  Thus, Paul writes, again and again, about the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions in the celestial places.  In one place he writes that these powers and the order to which they belong were all created through Christ, just like all of the rest of creation – just like everything we can see:

Colossians 1:16 for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him;

In other places, Paul tells us that Christ has conquered these “powers”:

 

Colossians 2:15 having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

 

Hart translates:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

And, in yet another place, Paul seems to imply that the final conquest of these powers is somewhere in the future and will be achieved at the end of time:

 

I Corinthians 15: 24 Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.

Hart’s translation reads:

 

Then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual.

 

We now have the question before us:  Why should we concern ourselves with this concept of the cosmos?  This notion of a complex and fallen spiritual order that is unseen, has been defeated by Christ, and that yet holds some sway in the affairs of humanity?  What practical difference would this make?

 

Let us start with the notion that Paul was obviously concerned that his readers – who would have found Paul’s conception of the cosmos and a hierarchical, spiritual order far less foreign than we moderns – not lose sight of the fact that this invisible order is a fact of life.  Thus, he warns the Ephesians:

 

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Eph 6: 12

 

Paul follows that warning with advice about how the disciple must carry out the battle.  This is the well-known passage about the armor of God. You know, the “belt of truth,” the “breastplate of righteousness,” the “shield of faith,” and the “helmet of salvation.”

 

I must admit that I never before found this passage very helpful.  It was just a kind of overdone, almost comical picture to me. But, leaving aside the details and whatever might be the distinctions between the helmets and shields and breastplates for the moment, we must admit that  Paul is telling his hearers in adamant terms and tones that since our battle is not against what we see, that our strategies and tactics must be different, much different, than those we would use against a physical enemy.

 

Let’s start with the idea of truth.  Against a merely human foe, would we be likely to use truth or deception?  Would we lie to our enemy to put him at a disadvantage, to deceive him into a trap.  How strange that Paul tells us here that our best weapon in the war against evil is not deception, but truth.

 

We do lie, you know.

 

In fact, it may not be too much to say that when we are facing a battle, our first impulse is to lie, or at least to tell less than the truth.  We want to protect our interest. We don’t want the bad guy to get the drop on us. Here is Bob Dylan:

 

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats

too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking

I had something to protect. . .

 

Jordan Peterson has spent decades as a clinical psychologist, working day after day with people who have crippling emotional problems.  He has come to the conclusion that such problems are always, in the end, moral problems. Even though the sufferers often are not conscious of the fact and may be desperately trying to hide from it, their problems are sin problems.  Many of these are caused or greatly exacerbated by lying.

 

We lie, Peterson says, for many different reasons:

 

To impose my ideological beliefs, to prove that I am (or was) right, to appear competent; to ratchet myself up the dominance hierarchy, to avoid responsibility (or its twin, to garner credit for others actions), to be promoted, to attract the lion’s share of attention, to ensure that everyone likes me, to garner the benefits of martyrdom, to justify my cynicism, to rationalize my antisocial outlook, to minimize immediate conflict, to maintain my naivete, to capitalize on my vulnerability, to always appear as the sainted one, or (this one is particularly evil) to ensure that it is always my unloved child’s fault. . . (209)

He goes on to say that our justifications for lying rest on two premises, both of them false.  The first of these premises holds that we are justified in manipulating reality by lying because we are already sure of what should result in any situation we are in.  We know the end we desire and we are sure that there could be nothing better than what we’re set our cap at and so we lie as a means to that perfect end.

 

Peterson says that this is false because we – limited and finite as we are – very often do not know everything that needs to be known in any given situation.  It may well be that our aim is not prudently made. It may be that the worst thing that could happen – even for ourselves – is that we get the thing we aimed for.  It may be that getting that one thing will prevent a whole string of other good things that might have happened if we had kept our thumb off of the scale. We lie our way into a corner when telling the truth, even if that might have cost us in the immediate, short run, may have led us on to fulfillment and destiny.

 

Second, Peterson argues that telling a lie presupposes that “reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices.”  To translate that into the language of Christian discipleship, it means simply that we are short on faith; that we do not trust the God of the universe with our lives, with our destinies.

 

Paul tells his hearers that it is very important that they not forget who the real enemy is; that the battle of life is a spiritual battle.  The century just past proves once again just how right Paul was and how great the cost may be if his advice is ignored. For the twentieth century is the story of a deliberate and intentional ignoring of that advice and of the catastrophic consequences of that ignoring.

 

Thus, it is Karl Marx who systematically reduced the battle to the seen.  Religion, said Marx – the belief in the spiritual and in powers other than those we can see – is the problem.  He recommended that humanity dismiss the spiritual as mere myth and opiate and focus solely on the physical. That experiment led to  murder and genocides the scale of which was never before imagined.

 

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More on Stupid King Xerxes

 

 

As we have studied the Book of Esther, we have spent some time and energy exploring the character of King Xerxes.  If we believe that the writer of this book went by the storyteller’s maxim to “show, not tell,” then we see a very deliberate and rather exhaustive effort to reveal the character of Xerxes through a recounting of his several decisions that figure in the story.

The picture we are given of King Xerxes is not a very flattering one.  Indeed, the writer here tells us that Xerxes is almost everything you would not want in a ruler.  He is ostentatious and insecure.  The first thing we’re told about the King is that he spends his time in a celebration of his own power and riches.  He lacks even the most basic insight and understanding of what is going on around him.   We can say a lot about the stupidity of the king’s demand that his wife come and show herself to his drunken friends.   This is denigrating and inconsiderate and shows a lack of respect for his wife.  But the fact that the king made this request tells us even more about the king.  For one thing, he obviously does not know his wife very well at all.

What Vashti does here in refusing to follow the king’s order is quite bold.  We must assume, however, that it was not out of character for her.  Thus, if the king had had any knowledge or understanding of his wife’s character, he would never have made this demand.  He would have foreseen that there was a good chance that by doing so he  would expose himself to the kind of embarrassment that in fact follows in the story.

After the king is embarrassed by his wife’s refusal of his order, he makes matters worse by listening to the self-serving advice of his courtiers.  Rather than taking time to consider his actions and attempt to ameliorate his own situation, he jumps from one stupid excess to another, ordering the banishment of his own wife.  Who loses in this situation?

King Xerxes, of course.  He loses the consortium of his beautiful wife.  In his one moment of humanity and sobriety that the story allows him, we see a strong hint that Xerxes is missing his wife and perhaps reconsidering the wisdom of his rash actions

Finishing Up: Esther and Xerxes

Let’s try to finish up our study of old king Xerxes.

 

We’ve already noted his rash and reckless behavior.  We’ve already noted his profound lack of insight into what is going on around him.  We’ve seen that he acts on impulse and that he is intemperate and easily manipulated.

But when the story turns and Esther begins to execute her plan to tell the king the truth, we see even more of Xerxes’ immoderate character.  Thus, when Esther approaches him with a request and before he has the first clue about what she will ask, he offers her “half of his kingdom.”

Moreover, when the truth about Haman is finally out and Haman is on his knees, begging Queen Esther for mercy, Xerxes misreads the situation yet again, perceiving, erroneously, that Haman is attempting to ravish the queen.

 

So, you might be saying, We get all that.  We see that Xerxes was an idiot.  So what?  What is in it for us as we read the story to day?

I think we can be pretty sure that it was a part of the author’s intent to make the case against Xerxes.  There is too much detail, too much description of his decision making to think otherwise.  Why is it there?

To make the point, I think, that this is exactly what earthly government is often like.  We expect and hope for prudence and integrity, but what we often get is recklessness and corruption.  Look at how the government actually worked then.  The king was manipulated by his advisors in every decision.  And his advisors, without exception, had their own selfish agendas in mind.  There is little thought for the well being of the king’s subjects.  All instead is focused on making the courtiers happy in the moment.

Xerxes is an idiot.  He would not know the truth if it beat down his door.  And that is exactly what Esther has to do.  She saves her race by speaking truth to power – and this at great risk to herself.  Power is often oblivious to the truth and yet we need the truth to live.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  We must speak Christ.  To live we must speak Christ.

Meditation on Psalm 24

 

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.

This Psalm begins with a basic, yet profound proposition: God made the earth and it belongs to Him.  That notion is so deeply embedded in Christian thought and teaching that those of us who’ve been around awhile might tend to glaze over when we see or hear it once again.  Oh, yeah.  God made the world and it belongs to Him.

But, like so many other things that we tend to ignore or sleepwalk through, these ideas have great consequences and they merit our continual contemplation.

There are (at least)  two problems raised by the proposition:

  1. If God made the world and it belongs to Him, why in the world is it in such a shape? Why do the innocents suffer?  Why do tyrants rage?  Why does wrong seem to prevail so often?
  2. When Christians start talking about God having “made” the world, the whole subject of the creation accounts in Genesis – you know: On the first day God said “Let there be light: and there was light.” Then on the fourth day, God created the sun and the moon and stars in the sky.   The question, of course, is: How literally do you believers take this?   Are you one of those who holds that all was done in six, twenty-four hour periods?

The first question has been around for so long that it has been given a name: “theodicy.”

Theodicy is defined by some as the defense of the omnipotence and goodness of God in the face of overwhelming evil in the world.

Suffice it to say that an in-depth discussion of this issue is far beyond the scope of this blog and far beyond the powers of its writer.  I’m no theologian and the purpose of this blog is simply to read and react to the Psalms as they hit me on that day, with the hope that my sort of normal and unprofessional thoughts might be of some aid or interest to others.

Having said all of that, I will also say that I have spent some time thinking about the whole theodicy problem.  I mean, it does kind of force its way on you.  And I think there is a one-word answer: freedom.  There is evil in the world because God has allowed his creatures freedom.  And freedom, if it is real, means the freedom to rebel; to refuse God’s grace and plan.

The bible teaches that the first evil is rebellion in heaven.  The first rebel was Satan, who has been banished to earth and who hold some limited sway here.  Not really hard to see that.  The Rolling Stones put this into the vernacular of the age:

I watched with glee while your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades for the gods they made

I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”

When after all, it was you and me

Let me please introduce myself

I’m a man of wealth and taste

And I laid traps for troubadours

Who get killed before they reach Bombay

 

We don’t tend to think of Jagger and Richards as theologians, but this song is really pretty consistent with Christian thought.  That line about who killed the Kennedys – “after all, it was you and me” – really captures the idea of

the falleness

 of all of us.

Now, with regard to the whole business about creation occurring in seven, twenty-four hour periods, let me give you my own take on it.  I think those accounts in Genesis – although they are the word of God, although they are authoritative as scripture and although they contain enough truth to fill every one of us up forever – I do not take them literally, as to time.

I spent a career as a prosecutor.  One of the things that happens when you start putting a case together for trial is that you start believing your own theories.  You should, of course.  Nobody should bring a prosecution that they don’t believe in – that they don’t believe is true.  But here is a corollary problem:  when you start believing in your own theory, you might tend to ignore contrary evidence.  The defense counsel presents you with other facts and these tend to undercut your case.  Do you take them seriously or do you brush them away for one reason or another because you are so confident in your own case?

Let me tell you, it is very easy to do the latter.  And we do it – I have done it – to our own peril.  Many times the contrary evidence should not be believed.  Sometimes it is cooked up; sometimes it is based on the testimony of unreliable witness.  But not always.

Here is what happens when we ignore evidence that is inconsistent with our theory:

  1. You will get your butt kicked in the courtroom
  2. You will lose the most precious quality that any prosecutor can own: credibility with the court.

For my money, there is overwhelming evidence that the universe is very, very old.  I have heard the number 14 billion years kicked around, but after you get past the first couple of billion years, it all starts to run together for me.  There is also overwhelming evidence that life on earth as it now appears, took countless ages to appear.

Like I said, this is all way beyond the scope of this blog, but a serious consideration of the evidence that the sciences have come up with – and there is a rather impressive consensus on this matter among the various disciplines – is set forth compellingly in Frances Collins’ fine book The Language of God.   That book is a serious and satisfying effort to harmonize the scriptures with the evidence that science has uncovered over the centuries, written by the man who headed the Genome project and who is, himself, a devout Christian.

There are those who will argue that once you consider any part of the bible as poetic expression, i.e., not literally, scientifically true, then it all goes by the wayside.  Not so.  Take the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example.  The evidence for the Resurrection, even taken from a legal and philosophical point of view, is overwhelmingly strong.  For that, read NT Wright or any of Lee Strobel’s books.

 

The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the strongest evidence we have for any historical event in antiquity.  If we would dismiss the Resurrection as being based on unreliable evidence, we’d have to do the same for everything we know prior to the advent of videotape.  The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is stronger – much stronger – than the evidence for the Battle of Thermopylae.

Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of Godin heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.

Esther: Speaking Truth To Power

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, songs and poetry and letters and law and histories.  The Book of Esther is a history in the sense that it records events that actually happened, but it is told in the form of a story.  The book is a short narrative of events that occurred in Persia (modern day Iran) and it features character and plot development, suspense and climax.

One of the marks of a good story writer is that he or she will “show, not tell.”  That is, rather than simply dictating conclusions about events or characters, e.g., “the king was a thoughtless man,” the good story writer will unfold the drama before the readers eyes by describing action and will let the reader form his own conclusions.  I think the writer of the Book of Esther was on to this.

Never in the story are we directly told anything about the character of King Xerxes, but as we read the story and see his actions and decisions, we may come to some pretty definite conclusions about him.

We see him first at a drunken party – one that he has put on to show off his wealth and power.  The writer gives us very particular details about the opulence of the setting and the extravagance of the event.  This party went on for days and there were servants with trays of drinks at the elbow of every guest.   From this we may get some inkling that Xerxes was a vain man – impressed with himself and intent on impressing others.

The first decision we see the king make involves his relationship with his wife

 

 

 

 

 

Xerxes – A Girly Man

 

What qualities would we expect or hope for in a king; in an absolute ruler?  We would expect and hope for wisdom, farsightedness, and self-restraint.  Someone who would consider all sides of a matter before acting.  Someone with enough personal experience and backbone to hear advice and weigh it and consider the source.  We would dread a ruler who is capricious and impulsive.  That’s what we’d expect and hope for.

But that’s not what we get with King Xerxes.  At every turn in the story his character is shown to be weak.  He seems to carry no personal convictions at all and to be totally dependent upon the advice of his courtiers in all of his decisions.

Thus, we begin with the most private and personal issues – the king’s own marriage.  He has asked his wife Vashti to do something that she has refused to do.  The very fact of the king’s asking tells us a good bit.  First, he is so indiscreet and reckless as to make the communications between himself and his wife a matter of public knowledge.  If the king had had any doubt about how Vashti might have reacted to his demand he could have saved face by communicating with her privately.  As it is, he opens the secret chamber of his most intimate relationship to all of his buddies and hangers-on.  Had she refused him in private, that would have been a matter they could have resolved between themselves.  But when the demand was made publically the refusal becomes and embarrassment and, as it turns out, a federal case.

Xerxes, the king, doesn’t have the sense to handle his personal affairs prudently.  He does not have enough insight into the personality and character of his wife to foresee that she might not be crazy about the idea.  He has no foresight into what the political fallout will be in the event of a refusal.

On top of all of that, his reaction to the problem he has created for himself is self-defeating.  Instead of giving the matter mature consideration and thinking twice about his own actions, he flies off the handle and once again brings the sycophants around him into his marriage.

They propose drastic action – in effect the dissolution of the king’s marriage (all for acts done in a state of drunkenness) – and, right in character, the king agrees.

The one bit of real humanity we see from the King in the entire story is right there in the first verse of Chapter 2:

After these things, when the wrath of King Xerxes subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her.

Although other interpretations of this verse are possible, I read this to mean that Xerxes was feeling some regret.  He was missing his wife and reconsidering the wisdom of his banishment of her.  Good on him.

But this moment of sanity and sobriety and rationality does not last long.  Once again the king’s advisers – I think of them as the ancient equivalents of today’s lobbyists – jump right in to protect their own interests.  Now king, they say, let’s not be rash here.  You’ve got to leave things in place or the precedential effect will be awful (for us).  Here’s what we’ll do instead:  We’ll make sure you get all the chicks.

 

Once again, Xerxes defers the most private and personal decisions of his life to his advisors.  He goes along with their plan.

We are not told why Xerxes bestows great honor on Haman.  Maybe it was legit.  Maybe he had really done something to deserve it.  One is tempted to think – given the way we’ve seen the king’s mind work – that Haman himself might have been the author of his own story.  That is, that Haman or somebody inside the court on Haman’s behalf sold the king on some inflated story about Haman’s valor.

What we do know is that in the one case where it is clear that the king ought to have honored someone – this time Mordecai, who had foiled an assassination plot against the king’s life – the king fails to act.

Finally, when Haman has his dander up about Mordecai’s refusal to grovel before him, he sells the king a bill of goods about the Jews:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents[b] of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”

Of course, this was all it took to convince Xerxes.  He immediately gives Haman his royal blessing to prosecute the contemplated mass slaughter of the Jews.  This without the first though of further explanation, fact-checking, or consideration of Haman’s possible ulterior motives.

Indeed, even later in the story, when the king finally does the right thing, he appears impulsive and intemperate.

What lessons might we draw from this study of Xerxes’ character?  That’s for the next post!